Hidden Figures stands out for its ability to communicate the patriotic, nationalistic pride, importance and focus of this country’s unity with the NASA space program. The movies also reflects a different era of American history that many Americans might not relate to, though with great editing, tender and insightful moments that reveal the darker places of America’s relatively recent past.
Set during the transition to the 1960s America was still dealing with Jim Crow laws, the zeitgeist of the cold war, and the pressure cooker of the U.S. space program after Sputnik, it was a time before electronic computing was commonplace. Unimaginably, the math for the orbital mechanics of space missions were being performed with slide rules, pencil, and paper. The revelation of this film is that some of the human “computers” that did this vital work were African American women, who despite their brilliant contributions, were segregated and marginalized because of their color and gender.
The superb cast is led by Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer, who are exceptional and nomination worthy as real-life mathematician Katherine G. Johnson and supervisor Dorothy Vaughan, and Janelle Monae, who brings a fresh and lighthearted character into the mix. Aside from quite a few supporting performances from Spencer, I’m not overly familiar with these actresses’ work, but all three of them are terrific in this film. I love the relationships these women have together and I instantly bought into their chemistry, as I did the material with each of the women’s personal lives and families.
Mahershala Ali is terrific as the socially awkward love interest Colonel Jim Johnson. Kirsten Dunst turns in a surprisingly solid performance as a hardened by-the-book supervisor, and Kevin Costner (Al Harrison) thankfully melts believably into his role as chief of the space program. Jim Parsons’ (Yes, Sheldon) portrayal of an overtly racist engineer is sadly wooden, and is the only weak spot in an otherwise strong ensemble.
One of Mr. Harrison’s lines in the film contains a large degree of irony. The line was something to the effect of “How can the U.S. government justify NASA when it is consistently unable to get into and explore space?” The irony is seen in today’s defunding of NASA for, essentially, that very concept. The movie made me sad to think how after the Space Shuttle program, NASA did very little to grow. What made NASA great was the perception of being explorers–exploration excited our society! Once NASA no longer appeared to be focused on exploration and shifted its focus to communication technologies, it lost that public support that was such a part of what brought so many people together. That saddens me, as growing up I dreamed of becoming an astronaut. As a child, I held my father’s hand in a room filled with a massive IBM computer and later the same hand held a real moon rock. We can thank NASA for Tang and Velcro. More importantly, the Space caused us to dream collectively.
Hidden Figures is powerful, beautifully filmed with a message as relevant today as it was in the 1960s. This is robust, big studio filmmaking with memorable real life heroes. It’s an inspiring story of overcoming daunting odds. I am giving this movie the highest rating possible for telling the story of these brilliant women of NASA and dramatizing the human spirit in a positive way. It’s a valuable addition to other films about the space race.